Scuba diving is a year-round activity in South Florida, but many divers only get in the water for the annual lobster miniseason.
Officially known as the two-day sport season, miniseason is the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. From 12:01 a.m. July 24 until midnight July 25, thousands of recreational divers will comb coral reefs, wrecks and rockpiles from Jupiter to Key West in search of the main ingredients for one or more delicious dinners.
Miniseason is the first opportunity for divers to catch lobsters since the regular season closed on April 1. Another reason why so many divers celebrate miniseason in South Florida is the daily limit is 12 lobsters per person, which is double the regular-season limit. (The miniseason limit in the Florida Keys and Biscayne National Park is six bugs per person per day. Visit www.myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster.)
Yet some veteran divers prefer to skip the miniseason mayhem.
“What we kind of found out this year is a lot of locals don’t do miniseason anymore,” said Gary Thomas, the manager of the Force-E dive shop in Pompano Beach. “They’re coming in saying it’s too hectic, and they’re waiting until the regular season [which opens Aug. 6]. But we’ll have so many newbies out there that it’s still going to be a busy miniseason.”
Thomas said the service department has been swamped making sure customers’ dive gear is working properly for miniseason — the service cutoff date is July 15 — and if you need to purchase lobster or scuba gear, don’t delay.
“Right now we have people trickling in,” Thomas said. “The week before miniseason, it gets crazy.”
Thomas, who dives frequently and has seen many lobsters in about 40 feet of water, suggested that newer divers might want to go out for miniseason with an experienced dive operation. Force-E, which also has stores in Boca Raton and Riviera Beach (www.force-e.com), charters local dive boats for miniseason trips. Thomas said openings are available, with the first trips set for midnight Tuesday.
Paula Herman of Tarpoon Lagoon (https://tarpoondivecenter.com) at Miami Beach Marina said co-owners Jake Sheckals and Valerie Kevorkian have scheduled miniseason trips at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Each trip is $90, which includes two tanks of air, and $135 with rental scuba equipment.
“We’ve been diving the reef, and we’re seeing a lot of lobsters,” Herman said.
Key Dives at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada (https://keydives.com) also offers miniseason charters. Mike Goldberg said he hasn’t seen as many divers out for miniseason the past few years, but he has been seeing “a lot of lobster” when he goes diving.
“It was a really good season last year,” he said. “For those that were catching lobster, it was very easy.”
He added that safety becomes an issue when divers attempt to catch bugs in narrow boat channels like the one leading offshore from Bud N’ Mary’s.
Flying a dive flag, which is required by law, helps divers avoid being run over by boats. Dave Bingham, a former lieutenant with the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and longtime diver, has gone a step further.
As a wildlife officer, Bingham helped create Dive Flag Awareness Week, which former Gov. Charlie Crist authorized. Since retiring, Bingham came up with the 3D Buoy, a yellow-and-red, 3-foot-tall inflatable dive marker that is visible from all angles. Available for $89 at www.3dbuoy.com and several area dive stores, the floating marker includes a flashlight to illuminate the buoy for night and pre-dawn dives.
“The LED flashlight is brighter than a cyalume stick and highly visible,” said Bingham, who has instructional videos on YouTube. “It’s good for beach divers, although for miniseason, it’s good to have it wherever you’re at.”
Jim “Chiefy” Mathie of Deerfield Beach said last year’s miniseason was exceptionally good for beach divers, who caught limits of bugs as shallow as 15 feet. Diving from his boat, his miniseason crew caught lobsters in 35 feet.
“I remember last year, we went to one of our regular spots the Monday before miniseason and if we counted 12 lobsters, that was a lot,” Mathie said. “Come Wednesday morning, it was loaded. We got our seven-man limit of 84.”
A retired Deerfield Beach fire chief, Mathie is the author of “Catching the BUG: The Comprehensive Guide to Catching the Spiny Lobster,” which covers everything from finding to cooking lobsters. The softcover book is available for $24.95 at local dive shops and www.chiefy.net.
Mathie has a free lobster-hunting seminar from 6-7 p.m. July 23 to begin Lauderdale-by-the-Sea’s eighth annual BugFest, a celebration of miniseason and the town’s beach access to local reefs. After the seminar at Plunge Beach Hotel, there’s a free miniseason kickoff party during which divers can register for BugFest’s Great Florida Bug Hunt. For a $20 entry fee, divers receive a goody bag and the opportunity to win cash and prizes such as regulators, dive computers, air tanks, dive boat trips and hotel stays.
Divers can also register in advance at Gold Coast Scuba in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea or South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach or at www.discoverlbts.com/bugfest.
The annual lobster miniseason runs from 12:01 a.m. July 24 through midnight July 25. The regular season is Aug. 6-March 31.
You must have a saltwater fishing license ($17 for residents) and a spiny lobster stamp ($5).
The miniseason bag limit is six lobsters per person, per day in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park and 12 per person in the rest of the state. The regular-season daily bag limit is six lobsters per person.
Spiny lobsters must have a minimum carapace length of more than 3 inches and must be measured in the water. Possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times. Lobsters must remain in whole condition while in or on the water. No egg-bearing females may be taken.
Night diving is prohibited in Monroe County during miniseason. Taking lobsters in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is prohibited during miniseason. Harvest is prohibited during miniseason and the regular season in Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Spiny Lobster Sanctuary, Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park and no-take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (visit http://floridakeys.noaa.gov for sanctuary regulations).
Dive flags on boats must be at least 20 by 24 inches and have stiffeners to keep the flags unfurled. Dive flags on floats must be a minimum of 12 by 12 inches. Dive flags on boats must be displayed above the vessel’s highest point so the flag’s visibility is not obstructed in any direction. Boats must make an effort to stay at least 300 feet from dive flags on open waters and at least 100 feet from flags in rivers, inlets or navigation channels.
Visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster. To report lobster violations, call Wildlife Alert at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Lauderdale-by-the-Sea’s eighth annual BugFest is July 23-27 and features a midnight beach dive July 23, a fish identification seminar July 26, a free clean-up dive under and around Anglin’s Pier at 8 a.m. July 27 and the third annual Diveheart Benefit Concert from 6:30-10:30 that night. The Great Florida Bug Hunt costs $20 to enter and offers $15,000 in cash and prizes, including $500 to the two-person team with the heaviest total weight of up to 12 lobsters caught off Broward County and $500 to the duo with the top weight caught off Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties. Other prizes include $400 for the biggest bug caught anywhere off a boat, $400 for the biggest bug caught off the beach and a Sherwood Oasis regulator valued at $420 for the biggest bug caught on a midnight beach dive off Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
Divers receive a raffle ticket for each lobster they weigh in Wednesday and Thursday. Winning tickets are drawn at 7:30 p.m. Thursday following the lobster chef competition, which starts at 6 at the Beach Pavilion at the end of Commercial Boulevard, so an individual can win multiple prizes. Register at www.discoverlbts.com/bugfest.